The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

April 28, 2022

A runner’s preferred speed is unaffected by distance

Analyzing data collected from 4,645 runners wearing the commercial Lumo Run fitness device over the course of 37,201 runs, researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, have demonstrated that a runner’s preferred speed doesn’t change with distance, terrain, or time. This is counter to the intuitive assumption that we run faster for shorter distances and slower for longer distances—a differential pacing that is consistent with competitive running, where pacing strategically in order to minimize time is almost always the explicit goal (with some exceptions like the Big Dog Backyard Ultra marathon). The constant preferred running speeds of daily running suggest that we run at the most efficient pace so that we minimize our energy expenditure. This observation could help “anthropologists seeking to understand the evolution of bipedalism in hominids, roboticists and rehabilitation specialists designing assistive devices for locomotion, and coaches and sports medicine practitioners training and rehabilitating athletes,” the researchers write. Current Biology

Photo of a person running by Mohammad Mohammad CC-BY-SA

Human diets and sustainable food systems of the future

Our modern global food systems fall short for hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are starving or undernourished, and if current trends continue, these same systems will fail far more in the future because of their environmental impacts. Agriculture and ranching already consume major land and water resources, and they are major contributors to global warming, accounting for a third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. How could changes to the human diet counter those environmental impacts? According to a new estimate by scientists at the University of Helsinki in Finland, replacing traditional animal-source diets with vegan diets or omnivore diets based on novel or plant-based proteins would be profoundly impactful. Though they say dietary changes would not be a panacea, it could reduce the environmental impact of agriculture by more than 80 percent. Quite a wedge! Nature Food

The brain’s secret peptide that fuels our love of tender touch

Light, pleasant touch is known to play a crucial role in the early social and emotional development of humans and other animals. Maternal grooming in birds and monkeys and a mother’s cuddling and caressing of her baby are key to healthy psychological development, and the absence of that tender touch can have lasting negative consequences on children’s mental health. Now researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, have uncovered the secret signal the brain uses to respond to gentle touch. They showed PROKR2 neurons respond to gentle stroking by producing a neuropeptide called PROK2. Mice lacking the ability to produce this peptide have impaired stress responses and pro-social behaviors—a discovery that could have important implications for understanding how pleasant touch deprivation contributes to mental disorders, the authors write. Science

Ancient building blocks of life on Earth found in space meteorites

How life emerged on Earth has been avidly pursued through experimental science since Stanley Miller and Harold Urey showed 70 years ago that sparks of energy could synthesize complex chemical precursors of life in the laboratory. Many have since wondered exactly how geophysical energy combined with the chemical soup crucible of a primordial Earth to create the first self-replicating systems of molecules and life itself. Now researchers at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, have uncovered evidence that DNA/RNA precursor chemicals known as nucleobases may have found their way to Earth aboard meteorites and served as building blocks of those first molecules. The existence of these bases in meteorites is in no way evidence of DNA from another planet—but it may indicate that an important source of these chemicals on a young, abiotic planet Earth was extraterrestrial. Nature Communications

Regenerative medicine saves livers in mice

Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and Altos Labs in San Diego have shown they could enhance liver regeneration and counteract liver failure in mice. By developing a way to induce expression of the four “Yamanaka” transcription factor proteins (Oct-3/4, Sox2, Klf4, and c-Myc) specifically in hepatocytes (liver cells), they were able to partially reprogram those liver cells into a dedifferentiated state. The reprogrammed cells then proliferated and helped regeneratively heal the tissue. Though there’s a long way to go before we see any similar tissue regeneration in people, the research shows partial reprogramming could be a viable way to do it. Cell Reports

ETS1: A regulatory protein of healthy human aging?

Older people who live longer may be helped by genetic switches that help them save energy at the cellular level, according to new research from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming and Xiangya Hospital in Changsha, China. Analyzing “transcriptome” gene expression in the white blood cells of 193 long-lived women of average age 99 the researchers found significant downregulation of pathways related to expression of the ribosome. This is the molecular machine inside our cells that churns out proteins from genetic transcripts. Its activity is essential but energy intense, and the researchers hypothesize having less ribosomal expression may help these women live longer and stay healthier. They also tied the longevity to the downregulation of a separate “transcription factor” protein called ETS1, which controls ribosome levels. It’s not clear how exactly we translate this information into longer human lifespans—yet. Science Advances

The LeBron James of robots

In a record-shattering engineering achievement, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have designed a foot-tall robot that weighs about an ounce and is capable of jumping 100 feet in the air. That serious hang time is far higher than any previous robot has ever achieved, the researchers report, and it’s more than an order of magnitude higher than the best biological jumpers found in nature. We’re thinking the L.A. Lakers should draft a robot and improve their chances of making the playoffs next year. Nature

A foot-high jumping device capable of leaping 100 feet. Elliot W. Hawkes